Review: Kinkakuji Temple, Japan
I had been to Kyoto previously in 2015 and Kinkakuji temple was high up my list of things to do at the time; unfortunately it just fell by the wayside due to being the only sight in Northern Kyoto that I was interested in, therefore this time I was determined to fit it in somehow on the second last day of my 2019 trip.
Getting to Kinkakuji Temple
There were no convenient stations close to Kinkakuji and it was generally agreed that buses were the best method to reach the temple efficiently. You can use ICOCA and Passpo passes on the buses, just remember to tap in and out and listen to anyone who calls out to you if you get it wrong. We took the 205 bus from Shijokawaramachi bus stop nearest our hotel, arrived at Kinkakujimichi bus stop in 30 minutes, before taking a 5 minute walk to the temple entrance.
There were large crowds at Kinkakuji despite it being a weekday before 9.30am, so I recommend arriving before the 9.00am opening time or near closing time to reduce the crowds by…like 10 people or something; I don’t think it’s possible to see Kinkakuji without crowds.
There was a large school group of boys who were entering at the same time and I didn’t see a teacher in sight. This would have been a recipe for disaster in the UK because teenage boys are, generally speaking, the worst; apparently they could be trusted to behave themselves in Japan. Perhaps they were private school kids? Not that private school boys were incapable of being absolutely vile, but they generally hid their awfulness better.
Our tickets to the temple were the prettiest yet with beautiful calligraphy running down it. In a way it was representative of the temple experience itself: beautiful and nice to look at…but with little substance.
Now I’m glad I went in a completionist kind of way, but after you shuffle to the famous vantage point and take the photo that everyone else takes there will not be much else to do.
I guess with this view they figured there needn’t be:
It was a beautiful view, if a bit gaudy for a temple, but if you treated it as a great big shiny building then it would be right up your alley.
Historically from the top of my head this temple’s style came during a time in Japanese history where outrageous shows of wealth and opulence was a popular choice and this temple was once famously burnt down by a young monk with mental health issues in 1950. Society’s attitude towards mental health is pretty awful, especially in Asian countries where you’re seen as weak, so I imagine it would have been much worse all those years ago. Surprisingly the monk wasn’t killed off but sent to prison, although he was released due to his aforementioned mental health issues and died of illness in 1956.
The temple was rebuilt in 1955, possibly made even shinier than it was, and is now one of Japan’s most popular destinations on pure looks alone.
So yes it’s that pretty.
But, to quote the totally beloved and not obscure animation ‘The Swan Princess’: “What else is there?”
There was a path winding around the lake through a garden area, unfortunately this followed a set route penned in by barriers that you couldn’t deviate from and we ended up amongst dozens of food stores selling all sorts of mochi, pickles, dango and other Japanese goods. In a way it felt more like a dark ride in Disneyland than a temple visit: you queue for a while, get sent down a set path to see something interesting in the water that you can’t touch, and then you exit through the gift shop. In fact Disney is more of a spiritual experience to some people than Kinkakuji, which is awesome/awful depending on whom I’m talking to.
It would be nice if we were allowed to see inside the temple or if there were some kind of exhibition to give more information about the place, but the existing Kinkakuji temple didn’t have a lot of history in comparison to the other buildings in Japan due to being burnt down all the time. I supposed they could have started an interactive experience titled “Are you the next person to burn Kinkakuji down?” where you get to carry a plastic version of a fire torch and try to set a record running down a computer mock-up of the temple interior?
No? It’s in poor taste? Well that’s fair enough.
You could throw coins in some areas and peek into an empty building which was the ex-accommodation of the head priest; there was also a tea house that we didn’t enter. However there was overall not much else to do that you couldn’t for elsewhere.
At least the green tea dango I had tasted good, it was much better than the normal versions with the odd syrup that I’m not fond of. Green tea makes everything better.
Go to Kinkakuji to get it out of your system otherwise it’ll always be something hanging over your head; especially if you are the type who likes top 10 lists. It’s a beautiful building that has a different aesthetic charm in every season, but for most people the value of it starts and ends with a photo. Keep your expectations low and bring your best camera, because not everything needs to be a deep and spiritual experience. Sometimes it’s fine to just be pretty.